There are documents that survive the strife of history. Who would have known that a missive written by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru of the Sikhs, to Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor, right after his defeat at the hands of the Mughal army, would survive ironically as Zafarnama, an epistle of victory? Written in exquisite Persian verse, as one can tell from the transcript in this beautifully designed bilingual book by Penguin India, the text stands out as a piece of fine literature, even though it was meant as just another bit of official communication. Navtej Sarna, writer and diplomat, has achieved the ultimate dream of a poetry translator by capturing the lyricism of the original Persian in a language so far removed and diverse as English. He learnt Persian on a sojourn to Tehran, we are told. His extensive introduction to the historic backdrop of events that led to the writing of Zafarnama demystifies the Sikhs for the contemporary readers. The gory traumas, a series of bloody martyrdoms, some almost forced upon the Sikh nation, provide ample clues to the making of this amazing fearless people.
The letter is a chastisement of Aurangzeb, who as a devout Muslim, failed on an oath taken on Quran. The oath was sent to Guru Gobind Singh in writing by the local Mughal commander in order to convince him to vacate his ancestral estate at Anandpur temporarily in order to avoid a feud with the neighbouring Hill Rajas who were incensed by the demolition of caste hierarchy among the Sikhs and feared greater trouble in times to come. Ever since its inception 200 years ago, the Sikh faith has had to fight the brahmanical system, idol worship and superstition on one hand and forcible conversion by the Mughals on the other. Even as the Sikhs had radically departed from the Hindu way of life, they stood up time and again to protect the Hindus from forced conversions at great cost to their Gurus and eminent leaders of the community.
At the time, in March 1705, Guru Gobind Singh, 40, was writing to the Emperor Aurangzeb nearing 90. Conventional deference to the Emperor’s old age and position apart, the letter spares him no double- edged words. ‘The Guru killed him not with sword but words’, as the Sikh balladeers would sing later on.
Considering the heavy casualties the Sikhs had suffered, the share of personal bereavements the Guru came to face in a short span of 3 months prior to Zafarnama, its dignified composure, its righteous, philosophical tenor is outstanding. Nowhere does the writer stoop to mundane details of the battle (recoded as The Battle of Chamkaur in the Sikh chronicles) in which he lost all his four sons, two killed on the field and the two youngest ones, five and seven years old, captured and walled in by the local Mughal commander. His elderly mother died of shock in Mughal captivity.
The Guru Gobind Singh of Zafarnama is not the sad, forlorn leader, who, separated from his Sikhs and three wives (one unconsummated marriage), spent wintry days (December 1704) roaming all alone among the wild beasts of the dense Macchiwara jungle, near Ludhiana. From the many heartrending verse prayers he composed in the jungle (as collected in the Dasam Granth) to the time he sets down Zafarnama three months later, his transformation is dazzling. His wounds are clean, his inner spiritual strength more than evident in every single nuance.
Of the ten Sikh Gurus, the two Gurus who have held great sway over Sikh hearts and minds, one is the saintly and otherworldly Guru Nanak and the other is the handsome, suave, erudite, gallant Guru Gobind Singh. His share of horrific personal trauma is staggering. In Sikh collective memory, he is the nine-year old child holding the severed head of his martyred father, it is his young children who are walled in, and it is he who will shape the righteous martial aspect of his community as well as temper their spiritual firmament. It needs to be recorded that not only was Guru Gobind Singh a scholar of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Braj and Avadhi, tumultuous times notwith-standing, he initiated many a translation and commen-tary projects, sent Sikh scholars to Banaras to learn the Vedas, initiated classical studies of the Adi Granth in his own time and left behind about 1200 pages of his own writings collected in the Dasam Granth.
Even after the battle of Chamkaur, when he finally reunited with his folks at Damdama, on the outskirts of Delhi, apart from taking stock of the Sikh military and community, he immediately sat down to put together the Guru Granth, dictating about 1500 pages of the Adi Granth from memory to his disciple Bhai Mani Singh, since the historic manuscript, a compilation of Bhakti poetry arranged by the fifth Guru a hundred years ago, had gone missing amidst all the strife. (Later on, when the original script surfaced, scholars determined that the two versions were exactly the same except for a minor spelling difference in one place. BBC, in fact, made a documentary on the subject on 400 years of the Khalsa.)
According to Sikh sources, Guru Gobind Singh deliberately handed over the letter, his Zafarnama, to the Sikh messengers rather than the royal messengers, as he wanted to know firsthand, from his Sikhs, the impact it had on the emperor. (Incidentally, Aurangzeb had the blood of Guru Gobind Singh’s father on his hands too when years ago he had got the ninth Guru beheaded at Delhi.)
Traversing a distance of 900 kms in 3 months on horseback, from Delhi to Deccan, where Aurangzeb is said to be camping at the time, the letter is said to have jolted the 90 year old Emperor so much that he fell sick with remorse and guilt (1705-6). From a pious man, (sewing prayer caps and copying the Quran in free time to earn for a righteous burial) he became a sinner of his conscience in no time. Aurangzeb’s Last Will bears testimony to this inner turmoil. A year later, he died a despondent person (1707) even as the Guru was on his way to meet him and clear things up as the aged Emperor had desired.
The two protagonists of Zafarnama, Guru Gobind Singh and Aurangzeb, died within a year of each other. Aurangzeb wanted to be buried a sinner, with face uncovered, as documented in his Will, so God may see and forgive his trespasses. Guru Gobind Singh died (1708) of excessive bleeding, following an assassin of a local Mughal commander’s attack while asleep. He never found justice for the walling in of his young children even as he trailed along the new Emperor Bahadur Shah, whom he had helped with his Sikh army in the succession war against his brothers beside various other expeditions.
A document which was never meant for posterity, Zafarnama brings out the ingenuousness of both its protagonists. The Guru indicted the emperor as if on behalf of the Lord. ‘In the Lord’s court the day I take a stand, I will be the witness for the blood on your hands.’ In our times of one-up-manship, this is a discourse on the dharma of diplomacy. Let the means be as sincere as the end. Had it not rankled the Great Mughal so deeply, as the Sikh chronicles claim and his Last Will vouches, Aurangzeb would have never claimed his humanity, he would have ever remained a riddle of a xenophobic monster.